On Our Minds

Working with so many organizations across multiple issue areas gives us a unique view into what’s happening in the social sector. This is where we share our insights and ruminations.
Isabella Cassell, Imani Doyle and Madeline Scheffler meet over video conferencing.
In conversation with On-Ramps: Creating community at work during Covid-19

“In conversation with On-Ramps” is a series that captures some of the internal discussions our team has as we sort through issues facing today’s social sector hiring managers. Isabella Cassell (she/her), Imani Doyle (she/her), and Madeline Scheffler (she/her) lead On-Ramps’ internal culture-building initiatives.


Isabella: Recently, we read an article in The New York Times by Roxane Gay about how the pandemic is causing our society to reevaluate work life, especially as it relates to the connections we form. There’s so much to unpack in this piece! 

Madeline: I was struck by Roxane’s mention of how everything has to be a meeting now as a way to foster connection and community, because you can’t just organically bump into someone. We miss those valuable, smaller moments that aren’t always work-related. I can send a Slack message to someone about getting on a call to talk something through, and when we are able to speak live, it feels so productive and refreshing. In those moments I think about all the times that happened organically when we were in the office. 

Imani: For me, the main intention of this piece seemed to be taking a closer look at this idea of balance. How do we manage the amount of work that we have with our personal capacity to do it? At On-Ramps, folks are checking in with each other by asking how people on their team are doing. But I think we’re all realizing these check-ins often don’t even scratch the surface. When we lack those organic moments of camaraderie and spend more time just discussing work, it naturally starts to feel like there’s only more work to do—and no opportunity to connect with those we’re working with.

Isabella: Similar to what the article notes, we want to provide care and community for people, but we also know that the type of care and community is different now and changes every day based on what’s happening in the world. Our team has really tried to offer different opportunities for connection that reflect individual needs, but also keep that larger community in mind.

Imani: One initiative that’s been pretty successful is how we’ve restructured our staff meeting. After we went virtual, we decided to integrate Zoom breakout rooms into the meeting to discuss prompts that were work or non-work related. We’d change how we divided people into groups each time too. Sometimes, we broke people up by their title at the organization—search associates, consultants, etc. Other times, we did it by roles that people played in a search—project management, advisory, etc. 

Madeline: We also changed who led staff meetings. Originally, they were led just by the three founding partners. In an effort to recognize that there are leadership voices at all levels in our firm, we opened it up to assigning a different On-Ramper to lead the staff meeting each month.This month, I led the staff meeting with Imani’s recommended prompt, “What are you doing outside of work that's ‘fulfilling’ for you?” During the discussion, I could feel the energy of the people sharing their stories as if we were in the room together. I learned all these things about my colleagues I wouldn’t have known otherwise. Imani: And when we sent out a feedback form about the experience, we were happy to see a lot of folks enjoyed the tight-knit community aspect of having that breakout room time.

Isabella: We also did socially distanced neighborhood get-togethers in the fall. Creating that space for people to meet in person was a great addition because it was the first time some of us had seen each other in several months. 

Madeline: My own team now sets aside an hour every other week, usually without a structured agenda, to simply dedicate time to discussing what’s on our minds—be it with work or otherwise. To the point Roxane Gay makes, we thought “What’s another meeting?” And in this particular case, it’s actually allowed for collaboration where it didn't exist before which has been super helpful.

Isabella: It’s been interesting to see how our clients tackle these issues as well. In the summer, they were pushing more toward having in-person connections with candidates whenever possible. That seems to have fallen by the wayside now out of necessity, with everything just being virtual and no real discussion of any other alternative. So we’ve talked a lot with clients about how to make candidates feel connected and welcomed in other parts of their process, like virtual onboarding. We’ve discussed how to introduce candidates to the organization’s culture and how to set up informal meetings as a part of the interview process, so that it’s not just strictly business.

Imani: We also push for internal briefs with our clients before they go into candidate interviews. While it is another meeting, it’s also a chance for us to catch up the people who haven’t been on the weekly calls and ensure everyone’s on the same page about their role in the hiring process—especially before they meet the candidates. By meeting internally first, clients usually clear up some questions that would have taken away valuable time during the interview, and instead open up the opportunity to tell a candidate more about their organization’s culture.

Madeline: Something that is still really hard to replicate, and that our team is still grappling with, is how to create space for folks who are looking to connect within a certain identity group—whether it’s race, ethnicity, sexual orientation, gender. Roxane Gay notes how, as a queer person of color, she appreciated how easy it used to be to just pop into the office of someone in her community to vent, joke, or process something. Now, that’s harder to do. We have structures in place to connect with managers and other members of our search team, but that’s all based around formal job functions. While we do have time for people to meet in race-like affinity groups as an effort to push our DEI work forward, I know it is much more difficult right now for someone who wants to connect with other members of their community in a more informal way. 

Isabella: That’s true. The last year has forced a lot of people to look at worklife more holistically. With fewer boundaries, it’s even more important to focus on the whole person and what their needs are, and making sure we provide resources and support for those needs. This year has been so hard for many of us because there is a lack of boundaries between home and work. But I think we’re getting better at looking at people more holistically in the workplace, which I hope carries over even when we’re at the office. 

Imani: We’ve seen how work can be done without necessarily being in office five days a week, but I do want the smaller group connections—like what we’ve built into our staff meetings—to be maintained whether work continues virtually, or is done in person. I’ve liked that we’ve conducted more client calls by video instead of by phone as well. I hope that face time remains a constant part of the process.
Isabella: All of this has kind of flipped the script on the working world. People now realize they don’t need to be in the office every day to have these meetings and conversations. But I do think what’s missed the most is the social connection. As worklife resumes to some sort of “normalcy,” I hope organizations focus more on reviving the social elements of work. 

Madeline: I also hope that remote hiring remains a key part of the workplace. I’ve heard many clients say, “Maybe post-pandemic this role can be done remotely. Our whole staff has been working remotely successfully, so why not open up this position?” That allows for talent from all over the country to apply to roles that they might not have otherwise had access to. I’m hopeful that we don’t revert back to the status quo, and instead ask the questions, “What’s best for my team? For our industry? For our clients and for all job seekers?” If that means we get to reinvent the wheel every once in a while, for the sake of greater access and equity around professional opportunities, that would be an important thing to come out of this time.